The Turncoat – Der Überläufer by Siegfried Lenz – Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month

The Turncoat, published posthumously in 2016 for the first time, was actually Siegfried Lenz’s second novel. His first novel Es waren Habichte in der Luft came out in 1950. Because it was successful, the publisher signed a contract for a second novel with Lenz. The first draft of the manuscript received a lot of praise but after he rewrote parts of it and handed it in for a second time, the publisher refused to publish it. They didn’t want a novel on a deserter who joined the partisans. The novel was forgotten until 2014, when Lenz told his publisher about it.

The Turncoat tells the story of Walter Proska, a Wehrmacht soldier. It is set on the Eastern Front, towards the end of the war, during summer 1944. The Wehrmacht has already withdrawn from the front, but there’s still a ramshackle Fortress, in the middle of the forest. After almost being blown-up by Polish partisans, Proska, who was looking for his unit, is told to stay at the Fortress. The Fortress is located near the Ukrainian border and run by a Corporal who is constantly drunk and gives the most absurd and shocking orders. It looks like he’s gone completely mad. The Fortress is populated by a motley crew of simple soldiers. Among them is a cook who has a chicken as a friend, a young student whose philosophical ideas slowly awaken Proska, and a soldier who mounts young birch trees in sexual frustration.

Days at the Fortress are absurd and boring. They are filled with dangerous patrols, disgusting food, mosquitoes, and orders the soldiers don’t feel like following. They are surrounded by partisans who try their best to kill them all. After finally being overrun by partisans, Proska and the young student join them.

There is a sort of love story between Proska and a young Polish woman who belongs to the partisans. He meets her before he joins the unit and later again in the woods.

I was surprised by this book. I expected something a little different. Not a book with such a colourful cast of droll, whimsical characters. The novel is satirical, which served to underline the absurdity of these last days of war. The soldiers wonder constantly what the heck they are doing there. What’s going on? What are they fighting for? Not one of these characters is a patriot. They are conscripts and couldn’t care less about the war; they want it to end and go back home.

While it had so many amusing, bizarre scenes, I still found it hard to read. There are several instances of cruelty against animals. Some in flash backs, some happen during the story. Animals and the way they are treated or mistreated is a frequent trope in war stories. It mostly serves to either emphasize that people have lost their humanity or that they are worse than animals. The scenes are short but I still found them upsetting.

What I liked the most was the writing. Lenz is a powerful, evocative, and very descriptive writer. I loved the symbolism, the figures of speech that run through the novel, especially in the nature descriptions. I also liked the way the characters were described. Each one of them is so different, quirky. Their dialogue is often sarcastic and humorous. My only reservation regards the ending. I found it a bit confusing, but that didn’t lessen my appreciation of this book. The Turncoat is one of those novels that show the cruelty and absurdity of war. There are no heroes here, no winners, only losers.

The Turncoat has been made into a mini-series. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an English trailer.

“The end, we failed it. Both of us.” (Max Frisch) – Ingeborg Bachmann and Max Frisch

When I was in my early twenties, I went through an Ingeborg Bachmann phase and read almost everything I could find by her. I loved her poetry so much. Sometimes when you revisit a writer that you loved ten or twenty years ago, you’re in for a disappointment. But rereading Bachmann’s poetry just made me realize again that she’s one of the greatest poets of all time. Her poems are mysterious and haunting and every time you read them, another part becomes meaningful. It’s not always easy to pin down what exactly her poems are about but that is what makes them so fascinating.

Back when I first read her, I wasn’t aware that she stopped writing poetry in the early 60s. There are still a few late poems, but most of her poetic work was written before 1961, the year she published her short story collection The Thirtieth Year. In an interview, she said she stopped writing poems because she didn’t want to be one of those who’d found a way to write successful poetry and would then go on, writing the same poems over and over again. She didn’t want to imitate herself.

There is, however, another interpretation, which, is more tragic. From 1958 to 1962 Ingeborg Bachmann was in a relationship with Max Frisch. The relationship ended in 1962. Both writers never really got over the ending, as Frisch clearly states in the quote I chose as blog title. “The end, we failed it. Both of us”. While Frisch would struggle until his death to come to terms and make sense of their relationship, the end almost killed Ingeborg Bachmann. She never really recovered.

I remember being surprised, at twenty, when I read that she was in a relationship with Max Frisch. Back then, I found it hard to imagine that a flamboyant personality like Bachmann would be with someone like Frisch who comes across as rather homey. They were so very different. Frisch, who was newly separated and about to get a divorce when they met, was used to a traditional family life. Before becoming a full time writer, he would work as an architect, while his wife was a housewife. Later, he would write in his attic, while his wife would do the housework and cook. It doesn’t seem like he ever expected this of Ingeborg Bachmann, but he expected a more structured life. From the beginning, living together would prove difficult. He found Bachmann rather chaotic. But that wasn’t the only difference. The biography I read pays a lot of attention to the way they experienced their surroundings, notably the landscapes, countries, cities, they lived in. Bachmann always looked for a mirror, an echo to her soul, while Frisch could just admire a landscape, explore a city and enjoy it. They met in Paris but then moved to Frisch’s hometown Zürich. For someone who was used to live in big cities like Vienna, Paris and Rome, Zürich was a shock. Switzerland in the fifties and sixties wasn’t exactly an openminded place. People frowned upon their living together. Bachmann found Switzerland stifling. They then moved out of the city to the country, which was even worse. Finally, Bachmann decided to move back to Rome and Frisch followed her.

Now she was in her territory but still the relationship remained difficult for many reasons. Ingeborg Bachmann would travel a lot and not tell Frisch when she’d be back. She would also keep their relationship apart from other people in her life. Almost as if she was living an affair. Even though, their life together was so dufficult, Frisch wrote continuously, driving Bachmann mad with the constant noise of his typewriter. It seems it even triggered writer’s block in her.

In the end, Frisch, who was genuinely suffering because she always held him at arm’s length, left her for another, much younger woman. Ingeborg Bachmann never really recovered from this blow.  She didn’t see it coming, never would have expected that he’d leave her.

It wasn’t easy to read this book. I felt sorry for Bachmann, but not because Frisch left her, but because the portrait that Ingeborg Gleichauf paints, shows someone who suffers from mental illness. I would even say she had narcissistic traits. One of the things that got to Frisch for example, was that she didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. She took absolutely everything seriously and personally. He had to be very careful what he said and how he said it, because it could trigger difficult reactions. It would be too easy to blame Frisch, because he’s the man, and it looks like he just exchanged her for a younger partner. Bachmann herself seems to have given the story this spin occasionally. She also said that relationships between men and women were murder. There are many instances in her work that refer to that. I would have to read a Bachmann biography to find out more where this came from. It’s clear that she was damaged and suffering long before she met Max Frisch. I can’t blame Frisch for wanting to leave her. I think most people would find it hurtful, not to be introduced to their partner’s friends. Not to be mentioned in phone calls. Not to be told, when the partner would return from a trip. Frisch couldn’t take it any longer. Leaving Bachmann for another woman, was his way to protect himself. Of course, this is problematic, and it seems to have been a pattern in his love life. He often ended things like this. Whenever a relationship got stale or difficult, he would end it and jump right into another one. Preferably with a much younger woman.

Writing this biography wasn’t easy for Gleichauf as the correspondence between Bachmann and Frisch is not available yet. There aren’t even any photos of the two together. We’re told they loved each other very much but it’s hard to understand why they were together.

Bachmann’s life went downhill after the separation. A suicide attempt, abuse of pain killers and other drugs and, finally, her tragic death in Rome, in 1973. Seen from outside, Frisch did much better, but he does admit in interviews that he, too, never got over her.

While their respective work can be read without any knowledge of their relationship, knowing about it helps to understand the deeper meaning. Everything they wrote from then on, always did, to some extent, deal with their failed love story.

This is just a very brief introduction to a chapter in two great writer’s life. One could write much more about this complex and sad story.

Here is one of Bachmann’s most famous poems

Harder Days Are Coming

Harder days are coming.
The loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your boots
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
For the entrails of fish
have grown cold in the wind.
Dimly burns the light of lupines.
Your gaze makes out in fog:
the loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.

There your loved one sinks in sand;
it rises up to her windblown hair,
it cuts her short,
it commands her to be silent,
it discovers she’s mortal
and willing to leave you
after every embrace.

Don’t look around.
Lace up your boots.
Chase back the hounds.
Throw the fish into the sea.
Put out the lupines!

Harder days are coming.

 

Here’s a short documentary on Bachmann. It’s well worth watching. Unfortunately, it’s only available in German.

 

 

Max Frisch – Montauk

When I decided to do Max Frisch and Ingeborg Bachmann weeks, I wasn’t entirely aware how ideal it was to pick Montauk. Although Frisch and Bachmann were a couple for a few years that doesn’t necessarily mean that their work will reflect that, but in their case it does. I’ve read Montauk alongside a biography of their relationship and the poems of Ingeborg Bachmann and it was uncanny to find them both so present in their respective work.

When Montauk came out in 1975, it caused quite a stir. Frisch was by that time famous for his novels and his plays and Montauk, even though it’s called a novella, was a departure from those genres. As Frisch states in the book, he wanted to write a story about his life, not inventing or adding anything, just stating the facts.

Montauk has a frame story. Frisch stayed in the US, in 1974, for a book signing tour. The last two days of his stay, just before his 63rd birthday, he spends with 30-year-old Lynn, a publisher employee. They decide to take a trip to Long Island and visit Montauk. The novella tells the story of this trip and the brief love affair he has with Lynn. This story frames memories of his life, his youth, the relationships and friendships he had. For many readers at the time, Frisch was too outspoken. He wrote about the women in his life, jealousy, affairs, impotence, money, fear of death and a lot more.

Two of the most interesting and longest parts are about his friendship with a man who isn’t named and his love story with Ingeborg Bachmann. The relationship with this man left a wound as he was his patron but never encouraged him to write. He always encouraged him to become and stay an architect, as he clearly didn’t think much of Frisch as a writer.

Frisch did initially want to become a writer and had a brief career as a journalist but then became an architect and, for the longest time, didn’t write full time.

The chapters about his love story with Ingeborg Bachmann are some of the most intense. I won’t say too much about it now, as I’ll be writing more about their story next week.

Initially, I wasn’t too sure about the book but then found it more and more engaging. It makes sense to call Montauk a novella, even though Frisch says that he hasn’t invented anything, that everything happened exactly as he describes it. This may be true but there is still an artistic choice. A choice which is reflected in the things he decides to tell and those he doesn’t mention but also a choice of structure and narrative voice. As I said before, there’s a frame story that is interwoven with passages describing scenes of his life. Another style element is the switch from first to third person, as if Frisch was writing from his own point of view and then switching to an outside perspective, writing about himself as his observer. It’s a very interesting technique.

The book can be read in three different ways. First, as a story that is engaging and interesting, without taking into consideration that it’s autobiographical. But you can read it as an autobiographical text too, and it will tell you a lot about the man Max Frisch. Not so much about the writer, as writing isn’t mentioned that often. He seems to have a very matter-of fact view of himself as a writer. He even says that he has no imagination. Writing is a craft he’s good at and that has brought him fame and fortune. Not more, not less. At the same time, since this is also a metafictional book, we can find implicit views on his literary production. This leads me to the third way of reading this book – as metafiction. Montauk says a lot about the production of autofiction or the choices an author has when writing about his life. He could have just told the story of his life chronologically, or, like Annie Ernaux, picked moments, zooming in on them, magnifying them. In many ways, he does the opposite. Yes, there’s the story of the Montauk weekend, which takes up more space, but the rest of his life is condensed.

At the time, when Frisch wrote this, Ingeborg Bachmann was already dead. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this death, which must have shaken him, even though they were no longer together, might not have triggered this work. When someone dies who is or was very important to us, it invariably makes us look back, reminisce, think about our life and contemplate our own mortality. In Montauk, Frisch does all this, using spare, minimalistic prose, and a gentle, melancholic tone. Montauk is this rare thing – a pleasure to read and a book that makes you think long after finishing it.

The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim by Sophie von La Roche (1771) First German ‘Woman’s Novel’

Published in 1771, The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim is considered the first German woman’s novel. Sophie von La Roche was born in Kaufbeuren in Germany in 1730 and died in Offenbach am Main in 1807. She was the grandmother of Bettina and Clemens Brentano and the cousin of the poet and writer Christoph Martin Wieland. She had eight children, one of which, her favourite, Maximiliane, the mother of Bettine and Clemens, died at the age of 37 after having given birth to twelve children. Sophie von La Roche was very well educated and one of the earliest known German women who travelled widely and independently. She was also the first financially independent German writer. Other than novels, she also published several of her travel diaries.

All this tells us that she was very much a woman of her time but also ahead it of it, which is obvious in The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim. 

The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim is an epistolary novel and tells the story of a young woman who has lost both of her parents and is now in the care of a pastor and her greedy aunt countess Löbau.

At the beginning of the story, countess Löbau takes her niece to D. where she introduces her to the court.

Sophia who loves the countryside, hates life at court. She much prefers a more quiet, useful life. The way the courtiers kill time with shallow amusements and games, not allowing time for introspection and solitude, is painful to Sophia. Furthermore, Sophia who so likes to study and read, isn’t allowed to do so as her aunt doesn’t approve of it.

At court, Sophia immediately attracts the attention of the prince. Hoping for favours at the court, her uncle and aunt decide she should become the prince’s mistress. They do not inform Sophia of their plans and so it is rather painful to read how this gentle, intelligent woman is slowly, but steadily trapped.

A young diplomat, Lord Seymour, is also interested in Sophia and she seems to like him very much as well. Unfortunately, not knowing that she has no intention of becoming the prince’s mistress and isn’t even aware of what is going on, he distances himself from her.

Another young nobleman, the roguish Lord Darby, tries to seduce Sophia and finally manages to convince her to run off with him. She thinks he wants to help her escape the prince, but Darby’s intentions are anything but gallant.

I won’t reveal the rest of the book. Let’s just say – it’s very dramatic.

The way life at court is described, as well as the social conscience of the heroine who tries to help the poor whenever she can, was way ahead of its time. It surprised me a lot. The book openly criticises the selfishness and idleness of the upper classes. But it also wants to educate and show another, more noble way for rich and aristocratic people to treat the poor. The book is equally outspoken when it comes to the treatment of women at court. Sophia wants to be seen as a person, appreciated for her intelligence, not her looks. Even though nowadays, in our Western society, no woman is forced to marry and have one child after the other, a lot of what is described in this book, is still very recognizable. It was off-putting to read how the men treated Sophia, seeing her only as an object of lust and desire. They ogle her, undress her with their eyes, try to seduce and touch her, without any concern for her feelings and regardless of her consent. For any woman who knows these kinds of looks and unwanted advances, this could be a triggering book. While the prince is a lecher, Lord Darby sounds like a true pervert reminiscent of people like Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein. Reading about the whole plotting and scheming against Sophia was upsetting. Lord Darby and his letters made me also think of Valmont in Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons. Darby, like Valmont, enjoys the idea of seducing Sophia because she is so gentle, kind, naïve, and, above all, virtuous.

While Les liaisons dangereuses is one of my favourite books, I would lie if I said I enjoyed this. It was a bit like 2020 – painful and seemingly never-ending. I just didn’t care for the style. As it’s a typical example of a sentimental novel, a genre that was very fashionable at the time, it was overly emotional and mawkish. All this outpouring of feelings was insufferable to me. It was interesting to read it as an example of a genre, but not very enjoyable.

I know I won’t read any of her other novels but think I would enjoy to read a biography of Sophie La Roche. She must have been a fascinating woman and the ideas and thoughts that she expounds in the novel are interesting.

Has anyone else read this? How did you get along with it?

Welcome to German Literature Month X 2020

The first of November is here and it’s finally time for German Literature Month.

As you may know from our intro posts, we have two parallel programs this year. Lizzy is reading literature from all of the German Bundesländer, while I host four author weeks, including a Literature and War readalong of a newly discovered Siegfried Lenz novel – The Turncoat– on November 27.

Week 1 – November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche week

Week 2 – November 8-14 Max Frisch week

Week 3 – November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann week

Week 4 – November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz week

Feel free to join us or read as you please. As long as you enjoy yourself.

Here’s the link to our dedicated GERMAN LITERATURE MONTH PAGE – please do add your reviews so we can find and read them.

Time After Time by Molly Keane

Published in 1983, Time After Time, is Anglo-Irish writer Molly Keane’s second novel under her own name. Before that she published ten novels under her pseudonym M. J. Farrell. There was a break of almost thirty years between her first ten and her last three novels. The early death of her husband was the reason for that long silence. Molly Keane also wrote plays.

Time After Time is my second Molly Keane. Back in 2011, I read and reviewed Two Days in Aragon which I liked very much. At the time, I wanted to know which one to read next and several people recommended Time After Time. Now, finally, nine years later, I picked it up.

What a wild ride. Not what I expected and not how I remember Two Days in Aragon, which was far more about the end of an erabut that doesn’t mean I didn’t like Time After Time. Molly Keane is a brilliant writer. She’s sharp, witty, and has a very distinct sense of humour.

The Swifts, four siblings in their sixties and seventies, live in a ramshackle mansion, Durraghglass, that has seen better days. Their fortune is long gone and so is their youth. The only thing they seem to have in common is a love for their late mother. Because of their mother’s will, they are bound to live together under the same roof. Jasper, May and June have never been married. The oldest sister, April is a widow. If it wasn’t for her and the money she inherited from her late husband, they would have had to sell most of their land. Still, it’s obvious they have no money as the house is constantly cold and decaying.

It becomes obvious very soon that this isn’t an entirely realistic novel. Each of the four characters has a disability. Jasper is one-eyed, April is deaf, May has a hand with only two fingers, and June, the youngest, never went to school because she’s dyslexic. They each have a pet, the sisters have dogs, Jasper has a cat. Just like the siblings, the pets are at each other’s throat constantly. This isn’t a harmonious household. On the contrary. These are four, selfish eccentrics who hate each other.

The character’s eccentricities and aversions, their feelings of self-importance, made reading this so much fun. The dialogue is sharp and witty. The characters behave a lot like characters in one of those hotel novels, we all like so much. Thrown together by fate but kept together by some sort of lethargy. They could avoid each other, but no, they always eat together. And since Jasper reigns over the kitchen, together with his formidable cat, he holds a lot of power. When he wants to punish his sisters, he lets them wait for their dinner or serves something he knows they hate. The meals are, invariably, accompanied by bickering and snide remarks. Here’s a short snippet

 (. . . ) there was silence until Jasper broke it with a curious cry: “What are you doing May? Picking the cucumber out of your salad?”

“You rather forgot my ulcer – I can’t eat cucumber.”

“Can’t eat this, can’t eat that. Why must you have such a lower middle-class stomach?”

“Perhaps it has something to do with your idea of Cordon Bleu cooking?”

“It takes imagination and a reasonable digestion to appreciate good cooking.”

“You don’t usually cook cucumber, do you?” The argument drifted into silence.

Pudding time came. Baby rhubarb and rice cream with a vaporous suggestion of nutmeg.

“I hope the rhubarb isn’t too acid for your ulcer.” Jasper eyed May’s lavish helping.

“My ulcer must take its chances (. . . )”

While the book is often farcical, the characters aren’t devoid of tragedy. They are all elderly and suffer from different ailments. Even though they try to hide it as best as they can, they are very lonely. This and many other uncomfortable truths are brought out into the open when a long-lost childhood friend appears on their doorstep —cousin Leda from Vienna, who they believed had died in a concentration camp. Leda, who once was a great beauty, is now very fond of alcohol and food. But since she’s blind, she still believes she’s charming and imagines her friends to be still as young and charming as herself.

These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close to the surface of summer roads.

The safety and monotony of their days is soon gone because Leda isn’t as cute or nice as they remember her. Oh no. She’s rather diabolical and a master schemer. If they weren’t so desperate for company and flattery, they might have been able to see through her. Being gullible, they fall into her traps. By the end of the novel, the siblings must face unflattering truths about themselves and nothing is as it was before.

In her foreword Emma Donoghue compares Molly Keane to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book combines, as she says, social comedy, grotesque descriptions and plot twists. I’m not so fond of comparisons like that, but I agree, Time After Time, has all these elements, combined with a terrific writing style, that’s very much her own. For some people these characters might be a bit over the top, but I liked them very much. They are eccentric and mean, but tragic in their own way. And, most importantly, never dull.

Announcing German Literature Month X

10 years, who would have thought it?  But here we are, and in a year when there has been plenty to be glum about, Lizzy and I thought we should buck the trend, and celebrate ten years with a bang! Hence the badge.

Thanks to all who have travelled with us thus far.  We hope you’ll accompany us again. For those who may be new to this, German Literature Month is the month for reading all things originally written in German – in whatever language you wish to read it – and then telling the world about it. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads. All good. Just use the hashtag #germanlitmonth when you share your thoughts.

Don’t have a clue what to read?  There’s a veritable database of reviews over at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com to help you find something appealing.

This year’s programme is a little different. Or, to be more precise, there are two programmes.

Programme 1

Unable to visit Germany this year for pandemic related reasons, Lizzy has an acute case of Fernweh, and has therefore decided on a virtual tour of Germany. One which will include all 16 Bundesländer, one way or another. Primarily through literature interwoven with memory.

Programme 2

I have decided to focus on four authors of interest, and chosen authors mean that there are weeks in which the spotlight will also  shine on Austria and Switzerland. My itinerary looks like this:

November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche

November 8-14 Max Frisch

November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann

November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz

The fourth week will include a Literature and War readalong of a recently discovered Lenz novel, The Turncoat. The discussion will take place on Friday 27.11.

As always, you can read as you please throughout the entire month.

We look forward to your company and discovering some scintillating German-language literature together.